On The Boards
November 6-9, 1997
Volcanos are powerful symbols of transformation, death, and the
fertility ultimately wrought by even the most destructive of change. In Volcano Songs, Meredith Monk makes the audience an offering in commemoration of such
themes. In explaining the genesis of her work, Monk elaborates:
Volcanic activity was instrumental in the creation of this planet. Volcanic land is some of the most fertile land on earth So there's tension between death and destruction on the one hand and rebirth and fertility on the other. These processes imply transformation, which is one of the underlying themes of Volcano Songs.
An "in-progress" multimedia work, Volcano Songs is a one-woman show consisting of a combination of movement, props, video, and live and taped vocals in the "extended vocal technique" Monk pioneered. Tony Giovannetti's lighting design provides some beautiful and intriguing moments in combination with Monk's supple movement and her sometimes stilled and fragile form between each unfolding, each transformation.
Monk opens her performance simply, walking quietly, eyes downcast, to the center of a large black-bordered red floor-covering dominating the dimly-lit stage. This ceremonial square of power will be the center for the unfolding of the Songs. Simply clothed in black garments and boots, Monk humbly embarks upon a journey of voice, sometimes high and evocatively childlike, sometimes low as the taped volcanic rumble which intermittently sounds throughout the composition. Before each new breath of sound she throws her torso forward and down, down, till her long braids slap the floor in punctuation. With a graceful roll of the spine, Monk draws herself up to once again stand erect, but she is centered, loose, a swoop of her hip or tilt of her chin marks another inspiration and she casts herself into song. Monk's performance is both direct and beguiling as she engages the audience with her eyes, her hands, her body.
An adjunct to Volcano Songs is the Shrine Installation which the audience views before the performance; in this particular instance at On The Boards in Seattle, Washington, the Shrine Installation was largely viewed by audience members in the few minutes before the performance hall was opened to seating, or between the time when seats were found and when Monk took the stage. Shrine Installation consists of a vertical triad of video monitors, one centered above the others. During the time I viewed the installation the inferior monitors were synched to feature a collage of short clips depicting a variety of plant and animal life related to themes of life, birth, regeneration, and death. Among these were time-lapse shots of flowers blooming, rows of single-celled organisms shifting positions, and cells pulsing through veins. Above this multicolored display of what could easily have been nothing more than competently shot stock footage, another monitor displayed an extreme close-up of a woman's face, her eyes looking unflinchingly at the camera, her facial expressions subtly altering with the moments, a crease of the mouth, a wrinkle of the nose, marking time.
For me, Shrine Installation, as well as the video projected at the end of Volcano Songs, did not add to the work. Monk herself is compelling in utterance and movement, she is like a child when she rocks left and right, when her mouth is slightly pursed and open in song. These elements of surprise and play were prominent when I saw Monk and Ping Chong perform a composition at U.C. Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall in the late 1980s during which the eerie and winsome sounds of the "glass harmonica" emitted from the friction of their fingers on the moistened rims of the half-full glasses of water before them. This kind of wonderment was also not lost despite the burden of the filmic apparatus in Monk's feature film, Book of Days. However, the content of the video used in Volcano Songs and in the Shine Installation formed little more than a trite reiteration of humanist values employing what are now all too common morphing and montaging effects. Both the installation and the moving images projected prior to the performance close contributed to a feeling of interruption and disappointment.
Volcano Songs closed with strings of fruit and vegetables rising from black wooden boxes (a Chiquita sticker "branding" the ripening bananas). Unfortunately, this, too, seemed a rather hackneyed reference to the promise of fertility.
The collaboration between Monk, Giovannetti, and designer/conceptual artist Paul Krajniak did, however, yield some resonating images which used Monk's body and movement as "negative" for some exposures of both still photographic and filmic pleasure.
The first of these sequences centered upon Monk's interaction with a large framed pane of glass which hung suspended, opaque and still. As Monk's prerecorded vocals played, her obscured and blurry movements behind this glass echoed their rhythm, then contrasted, as she seemingly tried to wipe from one side of the glass the cloudy substance which kept the clarity of her appearance from the spectator sitting on the other side. Amid the rhythm of her movement viewed through this opaque glass, amid the syncopation of the syllabic vocal sounds, the glass would suddenly flicker with a light of great intensity, rendering transparent for a split-second Monk's figure much in the same way that the diminutive unexposed strip of celluloid between two film frames reveals for an instant the white light of the projector, a reminder that narrative is inherently flawed.
Monk also used her body as object in the making of a series of "contact prints" or "photograms." From left to right, the three black cloths to the right of the ceremonial black-bordered red cloth were gently pulled away in dimmed light, Monk softly arranged herself upon each large sheet of glass once protected by the dark cloth, it becoming the platen of a life-sized would-be enlarger, and a rectangle of light was projected down on her body first curled left, then supine, then curled right on the large pieces of glass, so that when she moved each would glow brightly where exposed, the territory inhabited by her body remaining black and unexposed. I was reminded of the immediate incineration of millions when the atom bomb fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, how it is said that, for an instant, their shadows lingered behind. A friend told me of being reminded of how the soft volcanic ash of Vesuvius captured and encapsulated the inhabitants of Pompeii, Italy in human-sized burrows in which we would later find nothing more than human bones.
Finally, all three "images" exposed, Monk moved to lay prone on bare hardwood floor in a rectangular patch of light from which she seemed unable to move, however poignantly her hands stretched out towards the audience in a seemingly futile attempt to loosen some powerful hold on her abject body.
Whatever difficulties exist in Monk's Volcano Songs, as an in-progress work it is possible that these may later be resolved. Even if they are not, Meredith Monk is an unusual and worthwhile performer whose 30-year career in the arts has contributed much. Monk has been the recipient of numerous awards for her innovative works, including a Brandeis Creative Arts Award, three Obies, and the Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellowships.